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Remarks by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, National Labor College Workers Memorial Day, Washington, DC

Elizabeth Shuler • April 28, 2011

Thank you, Paula – it's a privilege to be here today for this ceremony, and it's great to see so many labor leaders, members, family and supporters here for our commemoration of Workers Memorial Day.

I was asked to offer some reflections on this important day -- with the weather, it's a perfect day to reflect -- I'd like to begin with a remembrance of a tragedy that's familiar to everyone here, a tragedy that shaped the American labor movement, and America itself. As Paula mentioned, almost 100 years and one month ago, on a warm Saturday afternoon, a fire erupted on the eighth floor of a needlework factory in lower Manhattan. About 500 workers scrambled to escape, but some of the doors were locked—to prevent the theft of cloth scraps and to keep out union organizers. Barrels of oil and other debris blocked the landings of the stairways, making it difficult for workers to leave, even through the doors that opened. As workers scrambled to the rusty iron fire escape, it bent and then collapsed. The fire department rushed toward the smoke and flames, but the ladders were too short, the water pressure too weak.

We know what happened next, how the fire grew explosively, and that soon the fire fighters and the massive crowds that gathered below watched helplessly and in horror as scores of workers, trapped and scorched by the flames, clambered out onto the window sills and ledges, and then fell or leapt to the pavement below.

All told, 146 workers died that day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Almost all of them were women and girls, several as young as 14.

Stunned by the scale of that public tragedy, first New York, and then the nation, began to impose a set of rules on workplaces to help maintain the health and safety of working people. It's also been said that the New Deal arose from the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

As is too often the case, it took a terrible tragedy to build the political will to do the right thing for working people. That political will comes together too rarely—and too fleetingly.

In the years since the labor movement fought and lobbied to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act (40 years ago, in fact) and the Mine Safety and Health Act, the progress we've made has been tremendous— and worth celebrating.

But our job is not done. We still have so many reasons to take action, and so many reasons to mourn. Workplace disasters haven't stopped. We have more tragic anniversaries than we can tolerate. Paula mentioned the large-scale tragedies we experienced as a country last year -- and just in the past 10 days or so, workers died in Kentucky, New York, Ohio, New Mexico and New Jersey—and a miner's body was recovered earlier this week after a roof fall in a silver mine in north Idaho.

The simple truth is that our jobs are still terribly dangerous. Some data suggest that deaths from workplace chemical exposure and cancer are actually on the rise.  Immigrant workers are still getting sick picking vegetables and they're getting hurt and killed by falling off of roofs and ladders. And millions of office workers are injured or in pain because of poor ergonomics.

Today, we also remember those who died fighting for their unions. We have far too many martyrs:
 
·         We remember, this year, the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket massacre in Chicago.
·         We remember the hundreds of Colombian trade unionists who have been assassinated, many of whom were guests on this campus before they died.
·         We also remember our brother and sister labor leaders—and their families—who paid the ultimate price while standing up for workers and workers' rights in other countries, and I know we have some of those family members in the audience with us today.

And so we recall the words of Mother Jones, who forever demands us to pray for the dead, and to fight like hell for the living.

We do, and we will. We in the labor movement honor our memories with action. We will never forget those who died in the workplace or while trying to organize workers. We remember them every day, with the work we do to improve the safety and health of all working people and by defending the basic human right to form unions to bargain for a better life.

Thank you for coming together on this Workers Memorial Day. And thank you for all you do.

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